"So just what is a Registered Magnum anyway?"
Wow, that is a complicated question that has several possible answers, definitely a big fat can of worms. No matter what answer I give I know that there will be some Smith & Wesson "expert" out there that will be upset about something I did (or didn't) say. But since I have made numerous posts on this blog about Registered Magnums and also have an entire website devoted to S&W's pre-war .357 Magnum I should anticipate the occasional question like the one above and be prepared to answer it, or at least try. Let me start out by saying that I am not the authoritative expert on this subject nor implying that I am. I have however read extensively on this subject matter and know much more than the average collector. Before I jump into the deep water and make an attempt to answer this question we first need to back up a bit and go over the basics, facts that most every Smith & Wesson collector can agree on. I will be over simplifying here but please bear with me because (as you will later see) this subject does become somewhat complicated.
Beginning in 1935 Smith & Wesson introduced their new .357 Magnum revolver chambered in the new, and at the time, most powerful handgun cartridge ever developed, the S&W .357 Magnum. The gun itself was a high dollar product essentially custom made to order. It was not cheap by any standards and appealed mostly to competitors, outdoorsman, police and others that wanted a "serious" gun. Stamped inside the frame of every .357 there was a special registration number (REG123 - etc.) and also supplied with each new gun was a registration card. If the gun's new owner filled out and returned the supplied card to the factory Smith & Wesson would then send them a nice certificate indicating the owner's name and the gun's specifications and was even signed by a company executive. The reasoning behind this registration (according to the factory) was so that by registering this new powerful handgun it would not fall into hands of dangerous criminals. In reality though this registration process was not much more than an advertising gimmick. It didn't matter much anyway because by late 1939 the registration numbers and process was ended as Smith & Wesson began the production of "Non-Registered Magnums".
It is also important to remember that at the time Smith & Wesson was producing these revolvers they never referred to them as "Registered Magnums" or "Non-Registered Magnums", those are labels that got added much later by gun collectors. At the time S&W simply referred to the gun as ".357 Magnum" or "The Smith & Wesson .357 Magnum". The name S&W used was quite direct and to the point, and in reality the only description needed because in the early years they were the only manufacturer producing a gun in this caliber.
But back to the original question - So just what is a Registered Magnum anyway?
The real answer depends on who you're asking.
If you were to ask many gun owners, the non-collectors, you would probably get a blank stare when you brought up the subject of "Registered Magnums". A few of the more informed could probably tell you that a Registered Magnum is a S&W .357 revolver made before the second world war. The average gun owner though has never even heard of, let alone touched one and any discussion on the subject would probably be as meaningful as trying to have a conversation about the Dodo bird, there is just no point of reference as most have never seen one. From e-mails that I have received and discussions that I have seen on gun forums I would say to the average gun buying public (those that even care) a "Registered Magnum" is some generic term to describe any .357 S&W made before WWII and in some cases ANY old Smith & Wesson .357. I've had some emails from gun owners who were sure that that their early post war .357s (pre model number 27s) were "Registered Magnums" and I unfortunately (and sadly) had to inform them otherwise.
But what about the opinions of more seasoned Smith & Wesson collectors, how do they compare? Unfortunately the opinions here are also diverse and can change from collector to collector. Generally though the term "Registered Magnum" usually can fall into three definitions.
The first is that a "Registered Magnum" is any pre-war magnum that has a registration number stamped on it from the factory. If it had a registration number it was a "Registered Magnum", simple.
The second thought is that a "Registered Magnum" is only a gun that it would have been possible to register. Some .357s, even though they had registration numbers stamped on them, were not supplied with registration cards and could not be registered (nor were they ever intended to be), such is the case with large police department purchases like the Kansas City Police Department (K.C.P.D.) which made a large buy of .357s from Smith & Wesson in 1939. Many collectors (maybe a majority) consider these guns and others like it not to be true "Registered Magnums".
A third group (and probably the smallest minority) take a much more literal view on the subject. To them the only "real" "Registered Magnums" are the guns that were actually registered by their owners and all others can't be counted. Going by this definition there would be considerably fewer "Registered Magnums" in the world than there actually are as most purchasers of pre-war magnum revolvers never even bothered to return the registration card to the factory.
Okay, I'm not sure my long-winded answer helped very much; in fact it might have confused some people even more. If it helped you even a little I'm happy. As I was saying earlier this is a complicated question, and when gun collectors get involved there's never an easy answer.
I actually find the whole issue a little amusing, as all pre-war magnums were finely constructed handguns and can be counted as some of the finest factory produced guns ever made. Having an extra little number tattooed on it didn't make any difference in the gun's quality. Also I would bet that some of the collectors that make the biggest issue about having a "real" registered magnum would also be the one's that would yell the loudest if Smith & Wesson (or any other gun company) tried to register their handguns today. As for me I'll take any I can find (and afford), registered or not, they're all superbly made examples of a long gone manufacturing era that will never be coming back, and they are all worth the effort required in finding them.